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Deadly Filipino 'slugfest' between soldiers and Islamists

Wednesday's firefight was the bloodiest battle involving the Abu Sayyaf in at least two years. It also raises questions about the effectiveness of US support to Filipino troops.

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Wednesday's battle suggests that at least that many remain on Basilan, which is home to 500,000 people and is slightly smaller than the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

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In 2002, I didn't talk to members of the Abu Sayyaf – given their penchant for kidnapping Americans and occasionally murdering their hostages. But I did spend a lot of time with Muslim civil society activists and leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) a far larger separatist group that has since entered into intense peace talks with the government.

At the time, these local Muslims described the Abu Sayyaf as a marginal group. But they warned that tough military tactics on Basilan were bound to step on more
toes than the ASG's and could even prove a recruiting boon to the organization in an area that is not only culturally estranged from the Catholic-dominated rest of the country but that still remembers the scorched-earth tactics of US General John "Black Jack" Pershing in the early 20th century as the US consolidated its control of the country.

The loss Wednesday of so many Filipino troops in such a short period of time also calls into question how effective their training has been. By comparison, 27 US Marines died in the month long battle for Fallujah in Iraq, a battle in which the opposition numbered in the thousands.

The Philippines Daily Inquirer quotes enlisted Filipino men from one of the elite units that have been receiving US assistance, and who participated in the battle, as saying the militants brought in about 150 reinforcements during the firefight and that they seemed to have inside information about the Philippines Army's movements.

The wounded soldiers were puzzled that the Abu Sayyaf bandits seemed to know government troops' movements, including the 8 a.m. arrival of the 67th Marine Raider Company, which served as reinforcement... I’m wondering why they know our movements. If we were not brave enough, we would have been wiped out," (Private First Class Randy) Liboon said.

The firefight was the bloodiest battle involving the Abu Sayyaf since at least 2007, a reminder that lasting counter-insurgency successes are tougher to achieve than often advertised.

In 2006, the US Embassy in Manila said in a report that the approach developed by the US and Filipino forces in the area was then being called the "Basilan Model." It described the model as combining "the iron fist and the hand of friendship" and said that it "succeeded in driving the ASG from Basilan and restoring both peace and hope to the island."

There have been signs that things were not as rosy as the Embassy said for some time. Last year, we reported that the situation in Basilan appeared to be fraying.

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